Lighten Up

Sales reps spend lots of time perfecting pitches and practicing presentations – major tools of the trade, of course – but a good sense of humor can also be a great relationship-builder. Here’s how a little levity can seal the deal.

The best salespeople know that selling is about establishing a trusting, meaningful relationship. What better way to get started than by putting a smile on your prospect’s face? The salespeople we spoke to have had their share of fun, and for some, the jokes have helped them laugh all the way to the bank.


At Proforma Printelligence (asi/491390), humor is the name of the game. The company’s tagline is, “We cover your print; we cover your promo; we cover your multimedia; and sometimes, we cover your ass.”

President and COO Kimble Bosworth believes that humor is the reason for their success. “We have pretty quirky personalities, and are known for that,” she says, “so when customers give us a compliment in an e-mail after a job well done, we send them this:

“That’s awesome! We’re so glad you like us. But if the only folks that know that are you and me, well…that’s no good. Can ya shout it from a rooftop? Tell your boss? Tell some HUGE company who wants their logo put on anything that doesn’t breathe? Or just tell our Facebook fans? We’d LOVE that! And it may just enter you into a drawing for BEST CUSTOMER EVER AWARD (which, incidentally, results in a gift shipment at year end that will shock and amaze the recipient.)”

Bosworth and the team regularly engage Facebook fans with self-deprecating and smug anecdotes. “We use these to subtly point out things we do that people might not know about like print signs and produce websites,” says Bosworth.

The company also capitalizes by celebrating significant dates, like the Mayan end of the world. The post read:

“Bad News: As of today, we can no longer guarantee any ground shipment’s arrival after December 21. We just could not afford the Apocalypse insurance from either FedEx or UPS. So, if you think you need to get your items to their destination before the end of the world, you’re just going to have to ship them overnight with guaranteed next-day delivery. The expedited shipping cutoff will be December 19. We are sorry for any inconvenience this may cause. On a related note, we are discontinuing our Mayan calendar product lines. We are having trouble finding sources for the 2013 version.”

Bosworth felt that customers were pigeonholing the company as “the print supplier,” “promo supplier,” “apparel supplier” or “website people” with no crossover. “We needed to let them know we do all things,” she says. “We also asked our customers what we do best. They said we fix their problems, act as an insurance policy between them and manufacturers and move mountains to make things happen in time. That’s the ‘cover your ass’ part.”

While it can be tough to decide what’s really funny, or what type of humor might be lost on others, “We decided that we just need to be true to what we think is funny,” she says. “We stay away from bodily functions and religion. Everything else is fair game. There is one rule that we use as a guideline: ‘You are only one post away from being that crazy cat lady. Think before you send.’ We also operate under the principle that, if they don’t think it’s funny also, they’re probably not ‘our people.’ We’re pretty lucky most of our customers are also ‘our people.’”

Joke’s On Me

Making people laugh is in Stewie Sobol’s DNA. The owner of The Entrepreneur Superstore (asi/188423) has been performing stand-up comedy for more than 20 years.

Sobol hones his skill by engaging people everywhere. “While waiting in line at the supermarket checkout, I’ll turn to the people in line behind me and say, ‘I guess you heard about Ellen DeGeneres today,’” he says. The response is usually a concerned, “No, what happened?” Having reeled them in, he says, “Apparently, she couldn’t take the pressure of doing a daily show. This morning, they found her face-down in Ricki Lake.” Insert rimshot here.

He’s used humor to his advantage in business too. “Since I do a good deal of cold calling, most of the time, it’s my comedy that gets me in the door and, more often than not, seals the deal,” he says.
When cold calling a local restaurant, Sobol wanted the hostess to introduce him to the owner. “I asked her if she had heard about what happened at the diner this morning,” he says. When she responded no, as expected, he said, “When the cook came in to work this morning, he found Snap, Crackle and Pop drowned in milk. The police are out there right now looking for a cereal killer!”
Corny yes, but, “that silly joke got me in the door and solidified the making of a new, loyal customer,” he says.

Many of Sobol’s customers and prospects want to share their own jokes, too, when they find out that he’s a stand-up comic. “It is important to acknowledge that everyone wants to be the center of attention,” he says. “If you can assist in that goal, you have a huge advantage over your competitors. Make it personal and watch people open up to you.”

Who’s Laughing Now?

Before Curtis Uejo started working in the promotional products industry, he had an experience that has stayed in his mind throughout his career.

The vice president of sales for Blue Flame Promotional Agency, Inc. (asi/491312) was working in his first sales position as an inside sales rep for a distribution firm. After two years, he had climbed his way up and was ready to start selling on the outside. Uejo had no real training and very little detail on the territory he was to sell to. “I had a few house accounts to maintain, but the rest was up to me,” he says.

Uejo was making a delivery and introducing himself to a few accounts when he happened upon a firm that had equipment out on their driveway. “It was full of the components my firm sold,” he says. “I thought, ‘This is great; I’ll just pop in and introduce myself and let them know I can supply these products too.’”

When Uejo walked in and handed over his card, he asked to meet the purchasing agent. The man he spoke with laughed and said to follow him to meet the agent.

“I get to the manager’s office, he looks at my card and starts laughing,” he says. “Now he gets on the internal intercom and starts calling all the other engineers to come to his office. I am thinking, ‘OK, I think this is good, but I’m not sure why everyone is laughing.’”

Eventually, there were about six people standing in the office and the purchasing agent started repeating the name of Uejo’s firm over and over again. “Then he says, ‘Do you realize we just fired your company a month ago for screwing up our orders and we told your boss we’ll never do business with your firm again?’”

Uejo remembers feeling like he was about to have a heart attack, but instead of retreating, he apologized and explained that he came from the inside trenches of the company. “I understood their challenges and I knew how to navigate them,” he says.

The group decided to give him a try. “They said they weren’t sure if they should throw me down the stairs or give me a chance since I was brave – or dumb – enough to step through their doors.”

The bottom line: Uejo walked out of the office with a list of items to work on that eventually turned into some very large blanket purchase orders. The client became one of Uejo’s largest accounts for a few years.  “We laughed about this a lot,” he says. “We have to connect with our clients; it helps to not take everything so seriously.”

What’s For Lunch?

Like Uejo, Mark Solomon, director of sales and operations at GForce Promotions (asi/213022), also knows that sometimes, you just have to laugh at yourself.

When he landed a meeting with a large, financial institution in New York, he first grabbed a quick lunch with his mentor at the time, Jay. Solomon opted for a grilled chicken salad.

“We got through security and up to first see our guy, Dirk,” he says. “Dirk was impressed enough with what we had done for him and his team that he was thrilled to be sitting us down with Jane. Jane was responsible for many meetings, a lot of events and apparently had a wonderfully large budget to spend on promotional marketing materials and corporate gifts.”

They made their way to the reserved conference room and got down to the business at hand. “I have yet to experience a more well-executed presentation and always strive to make things go the way that pitch went,” he says.

Jane and Dirk were beaming, action items were established and none of us could wait to get started. The meeting adjourned; Jay and Solomon were on their way. “Jay was in front of me for the first time in a couple of hours” he says. “He tilted his head a bit and then sort of squinted, as if trying to get a better look at something.”

That something was a huge piece of lettuce covering at least one tooth on the top row of Solomon’s mouth. “Things never really took off with the customer the way we had hoped,” he says. “To this day, I am convinced that the account would still be thriving had it not been for my lettuce-covered tooth. Eventually, I was able to find the humor in this little anecdote and a valuable lesson about toothpicks was learned.”

Solomon tells this story to his customers and prospects and it serves as a great icebreaker. “It allows me to demonstrate a very human side and shows I am happy to provide a laugh at my own expense, while being sure to note that I have and do work with larger, established clients,” he says. “Humor in sales helps to establish trust, as long as it is clear that you are serious about the job you’re doing.”

This Is My S.O.B. Son

Dennis Martin started working in this business for his dad a little over 30 years ago. He took over PACQ Inc. (asi/288640) in 2006, full of fond memories working with his dad over the years. And there’s one thing that continues to come up after all these years.

“On occasion, my dad would introduce me as his S.O.B. son, Dennis,” Martin recalls. “The first time he introduced me this way, I was a little bit in the state of shock. I was absolutely raw in the business world, only 23 at the time, and really the first time I was around an office situation. So you could say I was confused at the introduction.”

After a few seconds, his dad would explain that S.O.B stood for Son of Boss. Not only did plenty of laughs follow, but plenty of relationships were built in the process. Martin remembers his dad as the funniest guy around, and his friends tell him that the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree.

To this day, he shares that story with clients. “I think customers and vendors really appreciate the humor and I can’t help but think that it helps build relationships in a positive way,” he says. “I’ve always believed that if you can interject humor into your daily life with the people that surround you, it can only build stronger bonds between you.”

Pushing Boundaries

Erin Reilly, co-owner of College Glasses/Pop! Promos (asi/45657), spends a lot of time honing the company’s e-mail marketing strategies. “We try to provide interesting, useful, fun content for our clients to engage with our products,” she says. “We are a very fun, young office and often have brainstorming sessions to come up with e-mail subject lines.”

The most successful open rate ever had the provocative subject line: “Do you like being on top?” The e-mail was about College Glasses being the best supplier of custom promotional sunglasses.
Fortunately, no one took offense. “We received loads of e-mails in response commending us on the witty subject line,” she says.

The e-mail also generated many new leads, which proved that their efforts are worth it. “If you don’t work to create interesting, creative content for your marketing, why would anyone want to read it?” she says.

Reilly and the team continue to push forward. During the holiday season, they sent out an e-mail with the subject line, “Naughty or Nice?”

Is That Your Final Answer?

Raymond McKee, owner of Star-Spangled Specialties (asi/334913), pays homage to a game show to keep his clients and suppliers laughing. “On a daily basis, I find myself having to call customer service for valuable information like shipping dates, special pricing and quick turn-around requests,” he says.

“Just prior to my request I ask their name, and look up on my computer where they are located. Often times I’ll ask if they can offer my client a special price on the pending order and if they say yes, I’ll then ask, ‘Betty from Vitronic Corporation, you just said that you can offer those widgets at EQP.  Is that your final answer?’ To which they’ll respond in the affirmative ‘Yes, that’s my final answer.’”

McKee keeps a bell close to his phone, which he’ll then ring repeatedly and shout, “Congratulations, Betty! You’ve just won an all-expense paid trip to the big city of Mason, Ohio.  What do you have to say for yourself?’”

By then, the supplier is usually laughing their head off.  “The next time I call, they ask if they’re going to get the bell again,” he says. “They really don’t forget that very positive experience.”

With clients, too, McKee says that humor shows you’re human and helps to break down any initial negatives that may ordinarily occur during a sales presentation. “My favorite line to use with the receptionist is to speak rather loudly and say ‘If I could have only one minute and forty seconds of the boss’s time, I’ll be on my way,’” he says. “Usually the boss hears me, storms out of his or her door and says ‘OK, you’ve got one minute and forty seconds … starting now!’ When it’s over, 20 minutes have passed and I’ve made either a sale, a client or a new friend.”

Monkey Business

Monkeys are funny. Period. Hence, the marketing e-mail Enmart sent for a Monkey Day sale. “It was inspired by a suggestion from our national sales manager,” says Kristine Shreve, director of marketing. “He had the idea of finding obscure holidays and coming up with sales and specials pegged to those days. In this case, a search brought us to Monkey Day and it just seemed like a fun idea, and ripe for all sorts of monkey and banana-related punning.”

The idea also seemed like a good alternative to all the Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Green Tuesday e-mails everyone receives at the end of the year.

Enmart used a picture of a monkey in the e-mail, and all the monkey-related phrases they could think of (monkey business, barrel full of monkeys, monkeying around,go bananas).

The e-mail has brought in new orders and customers. “It’s also the first e-mail we’ve done where people have commented specifically on how cute the e-mail was and how much they liked it,” says Shreve. “Considering it’s a marketing e-mail designed to bring in orders, and that most people are flooded with those types of e-mails and may even consider them spam, I was very pleased with that response.”

Shreve is a big believer in a company being real, and she thinks that humor makes a company more relatable. “It also helps your message stand out from the crowd,” she says. “There are times when humor is not appropriate,  but I also think there are times when doing something a little funny or quirky makes an impact that normal corporate speak couldn’t make.”

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